The Dark Phantasmagoric Netherworld Beneath the Capitol

A congressional art competition is the last unsanitized corner of Congress, full of images that baffle and alarm.

National Journal
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Marin Cogan
Aug. 29, 2013, 11:24 a.m.

Shiny-haired, tan, and pretty, Har­ley Dal­lo­jac­ono, a seni­or at Patchogue-Med­ford High School on Long Is­land, seems like a nor­mal teen­ager — not the kind of girl who would pro­duce the most haunt­ing pho­to­graph hanging in the Cap­it­ol. For an art pro­ject this year, her teach­er told her the theme was hor­ror, and al­though Har­ley says she’s not at all in­to gore, “I was like, OK, I’ll go with that.” After brain­storm­ing with some of her class­mates, she used glue, makeup, and a bit of tis­sue to cre­ate “Zip­per Face,” a macabre im­age of a young man un­zip­ping his vis­age to re­veal the bloody form un­der­neath.

“I liked the re­ac­tion people in my class gave me,” Dal­lo­jac­ono says. “They were like, “˜That’s really scary’ and “˜That kinda freaks me out.’ “ Giv­en the re­sponse, her teach­er entered Dal­lo­jac­ono’s piece in the Con­gres­sion­al Art Com­pet­i­tion, an an­nu­al con­test that al­lows each House mem­ber to have one high school stu­dent artist’s work from his or her dis­trict hang in the Cap­it­ol for a year. Dal­lo­jac­ono hardly ex­pec­ted to win. When the judge star­ted talk­ing about the cool blues and the warm reds in her piece, she says, “I felt all the col­or in my face go. I was like, “˜Oh, my God, that’s me.’ I looked over at my teach­er. I was in total shock.”

Zip­per Face By Har­ley Dal­lo­jac­ono 

GAL­LERY: Fea­tured Art­work From the Con­gres­sion­al Art Com­pet­i­tion

Re­lated Gal­lery

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  • Fea­tured Art­work From the Con­gres­sion­al Art Com­pet­i­tion

  • Dal­lo­jac­ono was one of thou­sands this year who entered the art con­test, which is sup­por­ted by the Con­gres­sion­al In­sti­tute, a non­profit whose mis­sion is to edu­cate the pub­lic about Con­gress and help mem­bers serve their con­stitu­ents. More than 650,000 stu­dents have com­peted since 1982. Each House mem­ber reaches out to high school art de­part­ments and asks loc­al artists to judge. Ad­di­tion­al prizes vary by dis­trict (at least one stu­dent this year won a $10,000 schol­ar­ship to art school), but all the win­ning stu­dents get two round-trip tick­ets to Wash­ing­ton to meet their mem­bers and see their art hanging in the Can­non tun­nel — a sterile, sub­ter­ranean chan­nel con­nect­ing the Can­non House Of­fice Build­ing to the Cap­it­ol.

    People rush­ing back and forth between build­ings all day have little else to look at, and what of­ten stands out, amid the more con­ven­tion­al pieces — a por­trait of an eagle, a draw­ing of a sol­dier hold­ing his daugh­ter, a paint­ing of manatees — are pieces that are deep­er, dark­er, and more com­plex than what you might ex­pect of a high school art com­pet­i­tion. They are thrill­ing, con­found­ing, un­set­tling. And they can be jar­ring for the cul­tur­ally con­ser­vat­ive den­iz­ens of the Cap­it­ol, who of­ten live san­it­ized, poll-tested lives de­signed not to of­fend (or to of­fend only the op­pos­ing party). This may be the last fa­cet of con­gres­sion­al life not premised on ar­ti­fice. And it shows.

    VIS­IONS

    Vis­it­ors in­spect­ing the work dur­ing the Au­gust re­cess seemed sur­prised at what they found. “A lot of them are “¦ odd,” said a wo­man with short-cropped hair who was push­ing an eld­erly re­l­at­ive in a wheel­chair as a staffer walked her through the hall­way.

    “A lot of them are dark ,” the aide replied. “Last year’s was really dark.”

    “I feel like I need to call some of them and ask if they’re OK.”

    A red-headed staffer in a short dress passed by mo­ments later with two con­stitu­ents in tow, point­ing out her dis­trict’s win­ning work. “Every time someone comes in for a tour, we have to show them this one. It’s so em­bar­rass­ing!”

    An­oth­er khaki-clad staffer told some tour­ists, “If I were a kid, I’d want to draw, like, a dog or something. Not, like, a light­bulb with an oc­topus com­ing out of it.”

    But there it is, an oc­topus in a light­bulb. Also, an ar­rest­ing por­trait of an old wo­man, her face blue, her red eyes glow­ing, called “What Do You See?” that evokes the face of Star Wars vil­lain Darth Si­di­ous. And a paint­ing of a sad clown, his red nose smudged. (“This world ain’t a waste­land it just taste that way some times,” the script says.) Many of the pieces de­pict ser­i­ous is­sues, such as home­less­ness. Oth­ers are sub­vers­ive.

    Jordan Adams, a purple-haired Iowa City seni­or from Demo­crat­ic Rep. Dave Loeb­sack’s dis­trict, cre­ated a series of ma­nip­u­lated pho­to­graphs that play on 1950s icon­o­graphy in ways that upend the era’s tra­di­tion­al val­ues. One from her series ad­apts an im­age of a moth­er serving din­ner to her chil­dren. Adams put the head of a mon­key on the moth­er and a gun in the hands of a child; a nuc­le­ar ex­plo­sion is vis­ible through the win­dow. It is called “I Hope You’re Miser­able.” “I took something with each pic­ture, something that we be­lieve is the ideal of per­fect — an up­per-class neigh­bor­hood, a fam­ily pic­ture,” she ex­plains, “and I made them dif­fer­ent, be­cause they’re not per­fect; that’s not what they are.” Her win­ning piece, “Daddy Knows Best,” shows a fath­er read­ing to his chil­dren — ex­cept the chil­dren’s eyes have been scratched out, and the fath­er has the head of an ass. “That’s kind of self-ex­plan­at­ory,” she says.

    An­oth­er stu­dent artist, Madis­on Safer, won with a haunt­ing pho­to­graph of a young wo­man curled up in a laun­dry bas­ket turned side­ways on a train track. “It’s really about the struggles of be­ing a young wo­man; that’s what it meant to me. The feel­ings of isol­a­tion and solitude,” she says, de­scrib­ing the theme be­hind her win­ning work, “Dirty Laun­dry?” “I con­sider my­self to be a fem­in­ist, so deal­ing with the di­lemma of wo­men in so­ci­ety and also con­ser­va­tion of the land is also very im­port­ant to me,” says Safer, whose work rep­res­ents Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Pat Tiberi’s Ohio dis­trict.

    Taken to­geth­er, Amer­ica’s best teen­age artists ap­pear to be grap­pling with ser­i­ous sub­jects. “Misery at Mis­sion Mid­night,” “Seek­ing Hu­man Kind­ness,” and “Dream De­ferred“ (win­ners from Brad Sher­man’s dis­trict in Cali­for­nia, Lois Frankel’s in Flor­ida, and John Lewis’s in Geor­gia) are all em­path­ic de­pic­tions of people at the mar­gins of so­ci­ety. “It’s kind of sup­posed to con­vey the pain be­hind someone who’s liv­ing on the streets and doesn’t have any­where to go,” says Eliza­beth Bur­ton, a young Cali­for­nia artist who drew a man’s weathered face shrouded in a black hood­ie.

    And while many of the stu­dents say they didn’t have a polit­ic­al mes­sage in mind when they made their art, the pieces are ex­actly the kinds of im­ages voters might want their law­makers to think about as they walk to the House floor for votes. “I can only ask for the mes­sage that people would pay more at­ten­tion to the troubles people are go­ing through in this coun­try. I don’t feel con­fid­ent enough to talk about polit­ics, be­cause I don’t feel edu­cated enough,” says Con­ner O’Byrne, who pho­to­graphed a pan­hand­ler while vis­it­ing Bo­ston. “But from a per­son­al stand­point, I think it’s im­port­ant to tell each oth­er that. If law­makers would do that, it’d make the coun­try a bet­ter place.”

    PIC­TURE THIS

    It would be un­fair to char­ac­ter­ize the con­gres­sion­al audi­ence as wholly un­ap­pre­ci­at­ive of this work. Demo­crat­ic Reps. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio and Frankel of Flor­ida both dabble in the arts them­selves — the former in wa­ter­col­or land­scapes, the lat­ter in ab­stract ac­ryl­ic paint­ings of faces — and both are thrilled to sup­port the young artists in their dis­trict with pieces in the Cap­it­ol. “It doesn’t rep­res­ent the dis­trict in terms of what I would put on a poster for tour­ism,” says Frankel, O’Byrne’s mem­ber. “But it does rep­res­ent hu­man­ity.” She con­tin­ued, “I think there’s sort of an irony, be­cause I don’t think when people think about Flor­ida and the dis­trict I rep­res­ent, which is the beaches ba­sic­ally, “¦ you wouldn’t think about [the] home­less. But the sad fact of the mat­ter is, they are here and they are all over this world.”

    Reps. Jared Huff­man, D-Cal­if., who marveled at the brush strokes of the win­ning clown por­trait from his dis­trict, and Sean Duffy, R-Wis., whose dis­trict’s win­ning piece, “Lost Puppy,” is a draw­ing of a teary-eyed little girl, also kv­elled over the com­pet­i­tion. “People don’t see Re­pub­lic­ans as sup­port­ing the arts, and that’s not who we are. I be­lieve it’s im­port­ant for kids in my com­munity, and for me as a rep­res­ent­at­ive, to show that I care about the arts. I sup­port the arts and every tool we have. I’m go­ing to let them know that I sup­port them,” Duffy says. “For them to have their piece of art hanging in the Cap­it­ol — it’s pretty cool.”

    He’s right. Most stu­dent artists I spoke with de­scribed how honored and thrilled they are to have their ef­forts cel­eb­rated in Con­gress. But these are teen­agers and artists — in­stinct­ively a little bit re­bel­li­ous. Not every­one was en­am­ored of the idea. “I was happy, but at the same time, for me, the idea of an art com­pet­i­tion is something that I find sort of de­struct­ive to­ward the real pur­pose of art,” says Kai Valen­cia, who won from Demo­crat­ic Rep. Chris Van Hol­len’s Mary­land dis­trict. “I don’t think we should be se­lect­ing a few people who have the abil­ity to de­term­ine what is a suc­cess­ful piece of art and what is not.” Valen­cia is in­to street artists such as Dan Witz and Greg Simkins, and to the un­trained eye, his win­ning por­trait brings to mind some of the paint­ings of George Condo, the Amer­ic­an con­tem­por­ary visu­al artist.

    “It’s cool to have a piece of art hanging in the Cap­it­ol,” he says, but adds: “There are places I’d rather have it hanging.” The most im­port­ant thing to him, after the pro­cess of cre­at­ing art, is shar­ing it with an audi­ence that can identi­fy with it. “I don’t want to speak for any­body, but it seems like when I was walk­ing through the Cap­it­ol, those paint­ings that were hanging aren’t really ap­pre­ci­ated, be­cause every­one is really caught up in polit­ics, and every­one is rush­ing every­where.” He paused. “I don’t know if that’s the best place to have an art show.”

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